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Judge rules against Fontes in No Labels Arizona ballot access dispute

Arizonans can't run for office under the No Labels banner unless the state’s newest political party gives them permission.

The decision could impact who Arizona voters see on their ballot this year and is a win for No Labels, a group flirting with a third-party presidential run. 

In a new ruling Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge John Tuchi barred Secretary of State Adrian Fontes from accepting requests by any individual — including those registered with the No Labels Party — to be a candidate in the 2024 primary election. The decision also means that it will be No Labels that decides if it wants to run candidates for president and vice president in the general election.

No Labels earned official recognition as a political party in Arizona in 2023. But officials with the party said they’re only interested in nominating a presidential candidate in 2024, if they put forward a candidate at all. 

But that didn’t stop some Arizonans from filing to run under the No Label banner for other offices. The Arizona Secretary of State’s website shows at least five individuals have filed to run for office as No Labels candidates for U.S. Senate, Congress, Corporation Commission and the Arizona Legislature. 

No Labels asked Fontes not to place those candidates on the ballot, but, in a letter, the secretary of state said he was obligated to accept their statements of interest to run in those races.

Tuchi ruled that is not the case, writing the state can’t impose its laws in cases when a party does not want to offer a candidate for office.

No Labels was founded in 2009 with the state goal of combating what it calls the "polarized political climate" that has led to the most prominent voices "often found the farthest from the center." It has advanced the goal of creating a "unity ticket" to run in the 2024 presidential race "if the two parties select unreasonably divisive presidential nominees."

Tuchi said the party’s decision not to run candidates for other offices is its constitutional right.

"The First Amendment protects the right to associate with others to exercise the freedom of speech expressly protected by the text of the First Amendment, including the freedom to join together in furtherance of common political beliefs," he wrote.

Fontes did not dispute that right. But he also argued that the party's "freedom of association ends where the fundamental political rights of others begin," including the right to vote.

And that he said, outweighs what he called the party's "nomination-by-fiat preference."

The judge disagreed.

"Arizona voters do not have the right to select a nominee for an office the party is not seeking," Tuchi wrote. And he said an argument by Fontes that individual members of the No Labels party have the right to appear on the ballot as their party's candidate is "unsupported in case law."

"The (No Labels) Party has First Amendment rights to define the boundaries and structure of its association, including what offices it intends to seek," the judge wrote.

In a statement, Fontes called the ruling “dead wrong,” and said he will appeal.  

Wayne Schutsky is a broadcast field correspondent covering Arizona politics on KJZZ. He has over a decade of experience as a journalist reporting on local communities in Arizona and the state Capitol.